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In the early part of its history, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was in the pit for an astonishing number of opera performances, first with singers from the Metropolitan Opera on tour at the Auditorium Theatre (from 1891 through 1899) and again with Ravinia Park Opera in Highland Park (from 1912 until 1931). This included fifty performances of Pietro Mascagni‘s Cavalleria rusticana featuring some of the greatest singers of the era in the role of Santuzza.

Jane Abercrombie

Wisconsin native Jane Abercrombie (1878–1961, three performances in 1912) was a member of the Lyceum and Aborn opera companies and the prima donna of the first season of Ravinia Park Opera. Over the course of a month in the summer of 1912, she sang the leading soprano roles in multiple performances of La bohème, Cavalleria rusticana, Les contes d’Hoffman, Faust, Lucia di Lammermoor, Madama Butterfly, Martha, Rigoletto, Thaïs, Tosca, and La traviata.

Marguerite Bériza

Marguerite Bériza (1880–1970, four performances between 1916 and 1917) trained at the Paris Conservatory and made her professional debut at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1900 as a mezzo-soprano, performing mostly comprimario roles. She created the role of Geoffroy in the world premiere of Rabaud’s La fille de Roland in 1904, and two years later, she was Kate Pinkerton in the French premiere of Madama Butterfly; she also sang the role of Suzuki in later performances. In 1910, Bériza created the role of Pénélope in the world premiere of Terrasse’s Le mariage de Télémaque. By 1912, she was performing soprano roles, and she made her U.S. debut with the Boston Opera Company in 1914 as Musetta (with Maggie Teyte as Mimì) in La bohème. In 1915, Bériza made her Broadway debut in Atteridge’s Maid in America and her Chicago Grand Opera Company debut, singing the title role in Février’s Monna Vanna. 

Emma Calvé

French soprano Emma Calvé (1858–1942, five performances between 1894 and 1899) was a student of Mathilde Marchesi and made her debut as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1881. Following debuts at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and La Scala in Milan, she was selected by Mascagni to create the role of Suzel in the composer’s L’amico Fritz on October 31, 1891, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Calvé first performed at Covent Garden the following year before making her debut with the Metropolitan Opera on November 29, 1893, as Santuzza. “Calvé is a dramatic soprano of the first rank. It is long since New York opera goers have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing an artist of such splendid emotional force,” wrote William James Henderson in The New York Times. “She is at all times eloquent and powerfully influenced; and she knows how to put emotional meaning into her singing, never hesitating to sacrifice mere sensuous beauty of tone to true dramatic significance. Her success was immediate, pronounced, and thoroughly deserved.” She was later hailed for her interpretation of Bizet’s Carmen and performed the role over 150 times with the Metropolitan.

Emma Eames

American soprano Emma Eames (1865–1952, one performance in 1891) studied with Clara Munger in Boston and Mathilde Marchesi in Paris before making her professional debut on March 13, 1889, in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Palais Garnier. Eames made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Chicago on November 9, 1891, as Elsa in Lohengrin; her performance of Santuzza with the Met on December 4 also marked the company’s first performance of the opera. She also regularly performed at Covent Garden, in Madrid, and with the Monte Carlo Opera in Monaco. Eames was noted for her interpretations of the leading soprano roles in Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Cavalleria rusticana, Don Giovanni, Faust, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Le nozze di Figaro, Otello, Tosca, Il trovatore, Die Walküre, Werther, and Die Zauberflöte.

Florence Easton

A student of Agnes Larkcom at London’s Royal Academy of Music and Elliott Haslam in Paris, English soprano Florence Easton (1882–1955, five performances between 1919 and 1924) made her professional debut as the Shepherd in Tannhäuser with the Moody-Manners company in Newcastle upon Tyne, and she later was a member of the Berlin Royal and Hamburg opera companies. She made her U.S. debut with the Chicago Grand Opera Company in 1915 as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Siegfried; of her performance, Eric DeLamarter in the Chicago Tribune wrote, “with the superb tone, the enunciation, and the style . . . Fresh and most satisfying as to timbre in the scene of the awakening, the voice fell on the ear like a benediction after the three-hour fusillade of declamation,” With the Metropolitan Opera, Easton made her debut as Santuzza on December 7, 1917, and she was chosen by Puccini to create the role of Lauretta—who sings “O mio babbino caro”—in his Gianni Schicchi on December 14, 1918, also at the Metropolitan.

Lois Ewell

Lois Ewell (1885–?, two performances in 1913) was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Before turning her sights to opera, she enjoyed a successful career on Broadway, performing leading roles in Victor Herbert’s Dream City and The Magic Night (a burlesque of Wagner’s Lohengrin), George M. Cohan’s Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, and Lehár’s The Merry Widow. In addition to Santuzza during her single summer with Ravinia Park Opera, Ewell also performed the lead soprano roles in Aida, Lohengrin, Madama Butterfly, Pagliacci, Thaïs (she “does this sort of part very well, according to the Chicago Tribune. “She has abundant temperament for the plentiful theatrical trickery of the part.”), and Il trovatore. She later was a company member with the Century Opera Company in New York, where she performed the title roles in Aida and Tosca.

Bettina Freeman

Bettina Freeman (1889–?, four performances in 1915) was born and raised in Boston, and she made her professional debut as Siébel in Gounod’s Faust with the Boston Opera Company. After moving to New York, she joined the Quinlan Opera Company and later the San Carlo Opera Company. At Ravinia Park in 1915, she also sang the title roles in Aida, Madama Butterfly, Thaïs, Tosca, and Il trovatore. Regarding her performance as Tosca that summer, Musical America reported, “Miss Freeman’s singing of the aria, ‘Vissi d’arte,” and in the duet of the last act was highly artistic. The aria, which called forth outbursts of applause, was delivered with dramatic fervor and style.”

Alice Gentle

Alice Gentle (1885–1958, six performances between 1919 and 1926) began her career performing in the chorus at Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company beginning in 1908. She frequently said that, “Mr. Hammerstein ‘discovered’ her and was ‘both my artistic father and my mascot'” (according to her New York Times obituary), and he began casting her in secondary roles during her second season with the company.  At the Metropolitan, she made several appearances during the 1918-19 season, most notably as Frugola in the world premiere of Puccini’s Il tabarro. Later a film actress, Gentle appeared in The Song of the Flame, Golden Dawn, and A Scene from Carmen.

Claudia Muzio

Italian soprano Claudia Muzio (1889–1936, three performances in 1918) studied in Turin with Annetta Casaloni and in Milan with Elettra Callery-Viviani. She made her professional debut in Manon on January 15, 1910, in Arezzo, and debuts at La Scala, the Paris Opera, and Covent Garden quickly followed. Muzio first sang in the United States at the Metropolitan Opera on December 4, 1916, in Tosca, alongside Enrico Caruso as Cavaradossi. During her one summer with the Ravinia Park Opera, she also performed the lead soprano roles in Aida, L’amore dei tre re, La bohème, Faust, Madama Butterfly, Manon, Pagliacci, Il segreto di Susanna, Tosca, and Il trovatore. On October 15, 1932, she performed the title role in Tosca to inaugurate San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House (the first act was broadcast and can be heard here).

Frances Peralta (left) and Florence Easton

Born in England, Frances Peralta (1883–1933, one performance each in 1921 and 1922) and her family moved to California when she was a child. She received her early training in San Francisco and later performed with the Boston and Saint Louis opera companies, in New York’s Globe Theatre, and with the Chicago Opera Association.  Peralta made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on December 25, 1920, as Elena in Mefistofele and over the next ten years, she was a regular company member, performing the leading soprano roles in Aida, Andrea Chénier, Cavalleria rusticana, Così fan tutte, Don Carlo, La forza del destino, La gioconda, Guillaume Tell, Tannhäuser, Tosca, and Il trovatore, among others.

Rosa Raisa

Rosa Raisa (1893–1963, two performances in 1925) was born in Poland and in order to escape anti-Semitic persecution, she fled to Naples at the age of fourteen. There she studied at the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella with Barbara Marchisio and made her debut in Verdi’s Oberto in Parma on September 6, 1913. Marchisio soon introduced her to Cleofonte Campanini, conductor of the Chicago Grand Opera Company, and he engaged her to make her debut as Aida in Chicago on November 29, 1913. She enjoyed continued success in Rome, London, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, São Paulo, and Milan, where she created the title role in Puccini’s Turandot under Arturo Toscanini’s baton at La Scala on April 25, 1926. She sang the title role in Aida for the opening of the Civic Opera House in Chicago on November 4, 1929. In 1959, Raisa sat down with Studs Terkel, reflecting on her career and successes in Chicago; the interview can be heard here.

Elisabeth Rethberg

German-American soprano Elisabeth Rethberg (1894–1976, twelve performances between 1927 and 1931) studied at the Dresden Conservatory and made her professional debut as Arsena in Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Der Zigeunerbaron at the Dresden Court Opera in 1915. She made her U.S. debut at the Metropolitan Opera on November 22, 1922, in the title role in Verdi’s Aida. In The New York Times, Richard Aldrich praised “her high, clear, liquid tones of a singular brightness floating above Verdi’s orchestration with unforced ease.” Rethberg’s association with the company continued for twenty years, and she was featured on four Met opening nights. In 1928, Richard Strauss invited Rethberg to create the title role in his Die ägyptische Helena in Dresden.

Ivy Scott

Ivy Scott (1886–1947, one performance in 1914) was born in Java and made her stage debut at the age of five in Sydney Australia. She came to the U.S. in 1910 and appeared at Ravinia Park in the lead soprano roles in Aida, Madama Butterfly, and Il trovatore. On the radio, Scott was the original Mrs. Hudson in NBC’s Sherlock Holmes series, performed on The Goldbergs, and also hosted her own radio show. On Broadway, she appeared regularly between 1932 and 1946, in Music in the Air, Revenge with Music, Three Waltzes, Too Many Girls, Liberty Jones, Sunny River, and Song of Norway. 

On February 6, 7, and 8, 2020, Anita Rachvelishvili sings the role of Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Riccardo Muti conducts. An abbreviated version of this article also appears in the program book for these performances.

MENDELSSOHN Wedding MarchThe commercial recording legacy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—under second music director Frederick Stock—began on May 1, 1916. For the Columbia Graphophone Company (at an undocumented location in Chicago), they recorded Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre; and Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies, Heart Wounds and The Last Spring.

Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and Grieg’s The Last Spring were each on the first 80-rpm disc issued in October 1916, and a Columbia Records sales brochure raved, “The deepest glories vibrant in such a familiar composition as Mendelssohn’s Wedding March are unguessed until interpreted by such an orchestra as this. From the first trumpet fanfare to the great central crescendo is very joy and glory articulate! . . . There can be no pleasure beyond enjoying such music as the Chicago Symphony here brings to every music-loving home.”

Recording_Centennial_Rotunda_Display_102.75x60

BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4-2

To commemorate this legacy, this collage of record and CD labels is on display in the first floor of Symphony Center’s Rotunda through the end of the Orchestra’s current—the 125th—season. Details of all of the recordings included are below (all recordings were made at Orchestra Hall unless otherwise noted).

Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel made his debut with the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival on July 11, 1942, performing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with George Szell conducting. On July 22 and 24, Schnabel and the Orchestra recorded the Fourth along with Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto at Orchestra Hall for Victor Records. Frederick Stock conducted these, his last, recording sessions with the Orchestra; he died a few short months later on October 20.

PROKOFIEV Scythian Suite-2 WAGNER Prelude and Liebestod-2The Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the U.S. premiere of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite under the baton of the composer on December 6, 1918. On March 16, 1945, third music director Désiré Defauw recorded the work for RCA.

Fourth music director Artur Rodzinski led the Orchestra in a complete performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde—with Set Svanholm and Kirsten Flagstad in the title roles—at the Civic Opera House on November 16, 1947. A month later on December 14, he led the Orchestra in recording sessions for the Prelude and Liebestod at Orchestra Hall.

STRAUSS Ein HeldenlebenMUSSORGSKY Pictures at an ExhibitionFor Mercury Records, fifth music director Rafael Kubelík led the Orchestra’s first recording of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition on April 23 and 24, 1951. Principal trumpet Adolph Herseth performed the opening fanfare.

On March 6, 1954, sixth music director Fritz Reiner and the Orchestra recorded together for the first time: Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome and Ein Heldenleben for RCA. (Reiner’s complete CSO catalog recently was re-released by RCA.)

BARTOK Music for Strings, Percussion, and CelestaBRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2At the third annual Grammy awards ceremony on April 12, 1961, the Orchestra’s recording of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta received the award for Best Classical Performance–Orchestra. Reiner had conducted the RCA release. That same evening, the Orchestra’s recording of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto—also on RCA and with Erich Leinsdorf conducting—earned the award for Best Classical Performance–Concerto or Instrumental Soloist for Sviatoslav Richter. These were the first two Grammy awards earned for recordings by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

SCHUMANN Piano ConcertoPROKOFIEV Alexander NevskyReiner led the Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Chorus (prepared by its founder Margaret Hillis), and mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky for RCA—the first recording collaboration with the Orchestra and the Chorus—on March 7, 1959, at Orchestra Hall.

Two years after winning the prestigious 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Van Cliburn made his first recording with the Orchestra on April 16, 1960: Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Reiner conducting for RCA. (A complete list of Cliburn’s appearances and recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra can be found here.)

MARTIN Concerto for Seven WindsOn March 19, 1966, seventh music director Jean Martinon led the Orchestra in recording sessions for Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra for RCA. Featured soloists were CSO principals Clark Brody (clarinet), Willard Elliot (bassoon), Donald Peck (flute), Dale Clevenger (horn, in his first week on the job), Ray Still (oboe), Adolph Herseth (trumpet), Donald Koss (timpani), and Jay Friedman (trombone). (Martinon’s complete CSO catalog recently was re-released by RCA.)

SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 6-2NIELSEN Clarinet Concerto-2Benny Goodman recorded Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto with the Orchestra on June 18, 1966, for RCA. Morton Gould conducted. (Gould’s complete CSO catalog recently was re-released by RCA.)

At Medinah Temple on February 20 and 21, 1968, Leopold Stokowski and the Orchestra recorded Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 6  for RCA.

BERLIOZ Romeo and Juliet-2RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Sheherazade-2Carlo Maria Giulini—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first principal guest conductor—recorded selections from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet for Angel on October 13 and 14, 1969, at Medinah Temple.

The Orchestra made its second recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade on June 30 and July 1, 1969, at Medinah Temple for Angel. Seiji Ozawa, the Ravinia Festival’s first music director, conducted and concertmaster Victor Aitay was violin soloist.

DVORAK Cello Concerto-2MAHLER Symphony no. 5During eighth music director Georg Solti‘s first season as music director, the Orchestra performed Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at Carnegie Hall on January 9, 1970, and were called back for twelve curtain calls. Beginning on March 26 at Medinah Temple, Solti and the Orchestra committed their performance to disc—their first recording together—for London Records.

Daniel Barenboim, who would later become ninth music director, made his first recording with the Orchestra on November 11, 1970, at Medinah Temple. For Angel, he led sessions for Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with his wife Jacqueline du Pré as soloist. (A summary of du Pré’s association with the Orchestra is here.)

MAHLER Symphony No. 8-2Before the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the first concert of its first tour to Europe in 1971, Solti led recording sessions for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at the Sofiensaal in Vienna on August 30, 31, and September 1. Soloists included Heather HarperLucia Popp (more about Popp’s performances with the Orchestra is here), Arleen AugérYvonne MintonHelen WattsRené KolloJohn Shirley-Quirk, and Martti Talvela. The recording won three 1972 Grammy awards for Album of the Year–Classical, Best Choral Performance–Classical (other than opera) (for the Chorus of the Vienna State OperaSingverein Chorus, and Vienna Boys’ Choir), and Best Engineered Recording–Classical.

BEETHOVEN Fidelio BRUCKNER Symphony No. 6-2On December 13, 1977, Barenboim and the Orchestra recorded Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon, part of a complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies that also included the Te Deum, Helgoland, and Psalm 150.

Following concerts in Orchestra Hall and Carnegie Hall, Solti led the Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists (including Hildegard Behrens as Leonore and Peter Hofmann as Florestan) and in recording sessions for Beethoven’s Fidelio—”the first digitally recorded opera to be released,” according to Gramophone—at Medinah Temple on May 21, 22, 23, and 24, 1979.

ORFF Carmina Burana DOWNS Bear Down, Chicago BearsSecond music director of the Ravinia Festival, James Levine led the Orchestra, Chorus, Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus, and soloists (June Anderson, Phillip Creech, and Bernd Weikl) in sessions for Orff’s Carmina burana on July 9 and 10, 1984, for Deutsche Grammophon. The recording was awarded the 1986 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance (other than opera).

At the end of a subscription concert at Orchestra Hall on January 23, 1986, Solti led the Orchestra and Chorus in a spirited encore of  the Chicago Bears‘ fight song “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” in anticipation of the team’s Super Bowl victory. The day after the game, the work was recorded by London Records.

BRAHMS Double Concerto-2BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9-2Solti led recording sessions at Medinah Temple for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—the second time he and the Orchestra and Chorus had recorded the work—on September 28, 30, and October 7, 1986, for London. Soloists were Jessye Norman, Reinhild Runkel, Robert Schunk, and Hans Sotin. The release was awarded the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.

Claudio Abbado, second principal guest conductor, led the Orchestra in Brahms’s Double Concerto with Isaac Stern and Yo-Yo Ma (future Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant) as soloists on November 7 and 8, 1986, for CBS Records.

SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 7CORIGLIANO Symphony No. 1Closing the 97th season in June 1988, Leonard Bernstein led the Orchestra in performances of Shostakovich’s First and Seventh symphonies. Recorded live by Deutsche Grammophon, the release received the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.

On March 15, 16, and 17, 1990, Barenboim led the world premiere performances of composer-in-residence John Corigliano’s Symphony no. 1, commissioned for the Orchestra. The live recording—Barenboim and the Orchestra’s first on the Erato label—was awarded two 1991 Grammy awards for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Contemporary Composition.

Fantasia 2000BARTOK The Wooden PrinceThe recording of Bartók’s The Wooden Prince and Cantata profana led by Pierre Boulez for Deutsche Grammophon—recorded on December 19, 20, and 21, 1991—was awarded four 1993 Grammy awards: Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, Best Performance of a Choral Work, and Best Engineered Recording–Classical. (A complete list of Boulez’s recordings with the Orchestra is here and his complete Grammy awards are here.)

Between 1993 and 1996, Levine led the Orchestra and Chorus in recording sessions at Medinah Temple for Disney‘s feature film Fantasia 2000. The movie was released on January 1, 2000.

VARESE Amerique etcFALLA Gardens of SpainShortly after being named the Orchestra’s third principal guest conductor, Boulez led sessions for Varèse’s Amériques, Arcana, Déserts, and Ionisation in December 1995 and 1996. The Deutsche Grammophon release was awarded the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.

In May 1997 at Medinah Temple, the Orchestra recorded Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and The Three-Cornered Hat for Teldec. For Nights in the Gardens of Spain, Barenboim was piano soloist and Plácido Domingo conducted; for The Three-Cornered Hat, Jennifer Larmore was mezzo-soprano soloist and Barenboim conducted.

MAHLER Symphony no. 3BRAHMS Violin ConcertoA former Youth Auditions winner and member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Rachel Barton recorded Brahms’s and Joachim’s violin concertos for Cedille Records on July 2 and 3, 2002. Carlos Kalmar conducted.

In his first concerts as principal conductor on October 19, 20, and 21, 2006, Bernard Haitink led the Orchestra, women of the Chorus (prepared by Duain Wolfe), the Chicago Children’s Choir, and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung in Mahler’s Third Symphony. The work is recorded as the inaugural release on CSO Resound.

SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 4CSOR_SP_booklet_rainbow_nobox.inddIn May 2008, Haitink and the Orchestra recorded Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony for CSO Resound. The release was awarded the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.

Boulez led the Orchestra in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, Symphony in Three Movements, and Four Studies in February and March 2009 for CSO Resound. Soloists in the Pulcinella were Roxana Constantinescu, Nicholas Phan, and Kyle Ketelsen.

BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastiqueVR_booklet_CSOR_901_1008.inddOn January 15, 16, and 17, 2009, Riccardo Muti—in his first concerts as music director designate—led the Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists (Barbara FrittoliOlga Borodina, Mario Zeffiri, and Ildar Abdrazakov) in Verdi’s Requiem. The subsequent CSO Resound recording was awarded 2010 Grammy awards for Best Classical Album and Best Choral Performance.

Following his first concert as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s tenth music director (for more than 25,000 people in Millennium Park) in September 2010, Muti led the Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists (Gérard Depardieu, Mario Zeffiri, and Kyle Ketelsen) in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Lélio. The two-disc set was released on CSO Resound in September 2015.

VERDI OtelloBates and ClyneOn April 7, 9, and 12, 2011, Muti led concert performances—recorded by CSO Resound—of Verdi’s Otello at Orchestra Hall. Along with the Orchestra, Chorus, and Chicago Children’s Chorus, soloists included Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role, Krassimira Stoyanova as Desdemona, and Carlo Guelfi as Iago.

In February 2012, Muti led world premieres by the Orchestra’s Mead Composers-in-Residence: Anna Clyne’s Night Ferry and Mason Bates’s Alternative Energy. Both works were recorded for CSO Resound and released as digital downloads.

LincolnFor Sony Classical, composer John Williams led the Orchestra and Chorus in recording sessions at Orchestra Hall for his soundtrack for the motion picture Lincoln. Director Steven Spielberg was on hand to supervise.

Cheers to the next 100!

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Maria Callas (Angus McBean photo)

Maria Callas (Angus McBean photo)

Maria Callas was scheduled to appear with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Civic Opera House on January 15, 1957, in a benefit concert sponsored by the Alliance Française de Chicago for Hungarian relief following the recent Soviet invasion. Karl Böhm was to conduct, and the program would include several opera arias and a few orchestral selections.

However, as reported extensively in the press, there were several disputes between Callas and Böhm, and they were unable to come to an agreement regarding the program. Four days before the concert, it was announced that Böhm had withdrawn, having “reached a stalemate in program arrangements with the soprano.” Fausto Cleva, a house conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, was quickly engaged as his replacement; Callas arrived in Chicago three days before the concert, but by some accounts was more than two hours late for the first rehearsal.

January 15, 1957

January 15, 1957

The concert was notable for a variety of reasons. “Returning to the still reverberating scene of her American opera debut [in the title role of Bellini’s Norma in November 1954] to sing her first American concert on that same Civic Opera House stage, she knew the audience was wondering what really had happened to that stratospheric voice, of late winning headlines for the wrong reasons,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “So she took that voice, rammed it down their throats, and looked justifiably triumphant when they cheered.”

Cleva and the Orchestra began the concert with Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide, and Callas performed arias from Bellini’s Norma and La sonnambula, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, and Verdi’s Il trovatore (not all of the program is confirmed, as there are discrepancies between the program book and newspaper accounts). Near the end of the first half of the program, “Callas showed her mettle. She put down her bouquet, rested a foot on the podium, folded her arms, and sang ‘In questa reggia’ from Puccini’s Turandot, [which] as all operagoers know, is plain dynamite,” continued Cassidy. “It meant that a superb singer who is also an artist, and so doubly valuable, sang that cold, cruelly beautiful aria with every ounce of strength she could summon, driving it like nails into the consciousness of the audience. It was not beautiful, for it was forced to a degree altogether perilous to the human voice so mistreated. But it was, for sheer courage and determination, for winning at all costs, magnificent.”

Callas returned for another Alliance Française benefit the following year on January 22, 1958, again performing with the Orchestra at the Civic Opera House. Nicola Rescigno conducted.

This article also appears here.

Legendary Hollywood filmmaker James A. Fitzpatrick produced, directed, and narrated a number of Traveltalks for MGM during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. And one of his shorts was Chicago, the Beautiful, providing a marvelous glimpse of our fair city in 1948.

Some of MGM’s heavyweights worked on the film, including cinematographers Virgil Miller and Robert Sable, along with composer/arranger Joseph Nussbaum and conductor Irvin Talbot.

The marvelous, brief film can be viewed here. Enjoy!

Even though Orchestra Hall and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are not mentioned, the Civic Opera House (pre-Lyric Opera of Chicago) gets a nice plug.

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Theodore Thomas

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